6 Feb 2008, Boon Cheng
Stephen Chow conquered the East – and West – with his nonsensical humour in Kungfu Hustle. Will he have the last laugh for taking risks in his new family-oriented film?
Never work with children or dogs, goes the old showbiz saying. Comedy king Stephen Chow Sing Chi works with both in his latest film, CJ7, which opens here tomorrow. But neither the child star nor canine character reared their heads at his press conference here earlier this week. Instead, the director-actor shared the limelight with Chinese starlet Kitty Zhang Yu Qi, in the process dispelling rumours of a rift between the two.
Kitty Zhang, 19, is caring teacher Ms Yuen in Stephen Chow’s sci-fi comedy. Stephen Chow himself plays a poor labourer called Ti who finds a toy that turns out to be an alien dog christened Chang Jiang No.7 or CJ7 for short. But stealing the attention from everyone in the movie is 10-year-old actress Xu Jiao, a former unknown from the picturesque city of Hangzhou, who, in a gender-bending role, plays Stephen Chow’s son Dicky. Xu Jiao has been attracting headlines for her break-out role at such a tender age – and the self-proclaimed child-phobic Stephen Chow, 45, a bachelor, has even made her his goddaughter. However, she didn’t make the Singapore press conference on Monday, as she was down with flu.
Instead, Stephen Chow let his other protégée, Kitty Zhang, hog some of the attention at the press briefing at the newly opened St Regis hotel. Yet barely two weeks ago, the beauty made a much publicised late entrance at the world premiere of CJ7 in Hong Kong. Some wondered if this was a possible snub to the much-loved funnyman. Kitty Zhang had also missed a recent press conference for the film. She said she was sick then, Hong Kong newspapers reported.
Monday’s meet-the-media chat was held the hotel after plans for Stephen Chow, Kitty Zhang and Xu Jiao to promote CJ7 by being the first people to ride on the Singapore Flyer came a cropper due to red tape. But amid a whirlwind of questions from reporters, there was no hint of a rift between Stephen Chow and Kitty Zhang.
At an earlier interview with Life! on Sunday evening at St Regis, Stephen Chow exuded an appealing down-to-earth pragmatism: his salt-and-pepper locks were undyed and he was dressed simply in a red checked short-sleeved shirt, jeans and sneakers. He wore the same outfit to the gala premiere afterwards. Kitty Zhang, a Shandong native, sat primarily next to him in a glamorous black and white dress. Seated in an armchair next to her was Lee Sheung Ching, 27, who plays mean teacher Miss Cao.
The ease between Stephen Chow and Kitty Zhang especially showed when he was asked about the criteria for choosing the actresses in his films. Pointing towards Kitty Zhang, he said, “This is the standard for those aged 18 and above. For those below 18, the standard is Xu Jiao.” Kitty Zhang, who has recently completed Jump, a dance dramedy produced by Stephen Chow, clapped her hands in delight amid a burst of laughter.
Underdog with Clout
Stephen Chow’s pint-size co-star Xu Jiao was not here, but he praised her acting chops in the difficult role of his son: “Girls are very different from boys, from the way the way down to every little detail of life. Even when she returned homed, she couldn’t let it go and kept on acting like a boy so that it would became a habit. In the end, she managed to accomplish what we wanted.”
It would probably be more accurate to say what Stephen Chow wanted. He may play the underdog, the everyman you root for in his movies. But the only son among four children wields an inordinate amount of clout in Hong Kong. He is referred to respectfully as Sing Yeh, literally Lord Sing. For CJ7, he wore the hats of producer, scriptwriter, director and actor. The budget of the film was reportedly US$20 million.
The film is produced by Stephen Chows Star Overseas in association with China Film Group. It is distributed by Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia. However, some would say that Stephen Chow, the champion of Asian box office, has taken a bit of risk with CJ7. With its cute kid, an animated dog that was created by Hong Kong visual effects company Menfond Electronic Arts and a theme that tugs at the heartstrings, it is aimed firmly at the family market. That’s a departure from his usual mo lei tao (nonsense) blockbuster humour.
Still, he may have the last laugh, at least in Singapore. CJ7 goes head-to-head against two rivals that open here tomorrow: Jack Neo’s Ah Long Pte Ltd and Chu Yin Ping’s Kungfu Dunk, both of which are comedies.
Ironically, Stephen Chow’s most recent madcap monster, Kungfu Hustle (2004), was a knock-out hit. It made HK$60m in Hong Kong, the highest-grossing home-made film in the territory’s history. CJ7, which opened in Hong Kong on January 31, took in HK$15.8m in its first four days there. Kung Fu Hustle made HK$25.5m in the same time-frame.
Indeed, Stephen Chow mused aloud in Mandarin on family films, saying: “Is it because audiences don’t like it or is it simply that no one is doing it?” He said he always considers the business factor before venturing on a new project: “I will often consider what is lacking in the market and there are very few family-oriented films out there right now.”
However, later at the press conference, he acknowledged the risks of trying out a new genre: “Of course, everyone has high expectations of me and I understand. Thank you, everyone. But I’ve already made so many comedies. Of course, it’s not easy making the audiences laugh as well. But if I can move them and make them cry, that would be a huge breakthrough for me and I hope I can do it.”
It is still too early to write CJ7 off as a disappointment as it is still on track to earn HK$40m to HK$45. By the end of the festive week, the producer-writer-director-actor will have a box office answer to his question of whether audiences like his Asian family flick.
Stephen Chow has come a long way since he started in TV as the host of children’s programme 430. But it was with All for the Winner (1990), a parody of the popular God of Gamblers (1989) that he found his true calling. Its HK$41m takings broke the box-office record then.
Stephen Chow developed his own brand of mo lei tau with its puns and double entendres unique to Cantonese and had a string of hits, including the period comedy with the late Anita Mui, Justice, My Foot! (1992), and God of Cookery (1996). Despite being dubbed in Mandarin which meant his jokes were lost in translation, A Chinese Odyssey (1995) based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, cemented his popularity on the Chinese mainland as bootlegged discs made their way around.
He moved on to conquer the world with Kung Fu Hustle, which was the highest-grossing foreign language film in the United States in 2005 with US$17m in receipts. It has been said that comedy does not travel well as a genre because of linguistic and other cultural differences. But Stephen Chow has disproved this with box-office hits across Asia and have grossed millions. According to the online Chinese reference portal baike.baidu.com, his movies have grossed a grand total of HK$1.25 billion in Hong Kong alone. His box-office muscle explains how he has evolved from a lowly television host and small-time actor to a unique, multitasking powerhouse in Hong Kong who is able to dictate every aspect of his film projects.
Asked why he writes, directs, produces and acts, and he answered matter-of-factly: “Because I’m very interested in these various aspects, that’s why. It has to be like that. If it was simply to wan sek (Cantonese for to make a living) and I forced myself to do all these things, it would not be possible.”
Following his heart has taken him to the top of Hong Kong entertainment scene and won him some famous fans.
American star Will Smith publicly declared his admiration of Stephen Chow and the two met in Hong Kong last December at the Asian premiere of Smith’s sci-fi thriller I Am Legend. Will Smith proposed collaborating on a remake of the hit 1984 martial arts movie The Karate Kid. Apart from talking shop, Stephen Chow said Will Smith also shared some of his personal experiences. “After all, he’s a big star.” His assessment of Will Smith: “He’s really nice, smart, and knows what needs to be done.”
While his Hollywood connections are growing, Stephen Chow is not inclined to go west. “I’ve never particularly wanted to go to Hollywood. I just want to keep on making movies I want to do. But I think it’s a good thing to work with people around the world. One should be open and interact with top talent in the world so that new and better ideas can emerge.”
Moreover, he has more than enough things to occupy his time in Asia, one of which is a new version of the Chinese classic Journey to the West, with a reported budget of US$100m. Stephen Chow will play the Monkey King, while CJ7 co-star Kitty Zhang takes on the role of the monk Tripitaka, portrayed as a nun in disguise. At Sunday’s Life! interview, Stephen Chow indulged in a little monkeying around himself, saying with mock seriousness: “Kitty is quite busy nowadays and I don’t know if she has the time.” This drew a gasp of laugher from the actress. As if to dispel the misunderstanding at CJ7’s Hong Kong premiere once and for all, she responded: “Yes, yes, I definitely have the time. I’ll always make time for you.” Photos: Sina